Spain Snapshots: The Carnavales de Cádiz

If andaluces are considered Spain’s most affable folk, it’s believed that the gaditanos, those from Cádiz, are blessed with the gift of wit. At no time in the year is this trait so celebrated as during the Carnavales de Cádiz.

Based (very) loosely on Venice’s extravagant Carnivale, this pre-Lenten festival is a huge tourist draw in Andalucía in which choirs, called coros, entertain city dwellers from flatbed trucks around the historic center. There’s also a song competition between chirigotas, or small, satirical musical groups who compose their own verses about whatever happens to be controversial each year.

But because it’s before Lent, why not add a pagan element to the festivities? Cádiz’s city center fills with young people who dress in costumes and carry around bottles of booze on Saturday night.

My first Carnaval experience was insane – partying with my Erasmus friends from Seville and Huelva, dressed up as an Indian with a kid’s costume I bought for 8€, endless amounts of tinto de verano and strong mixed drinks. I even ripped my shoes up on the broken glass that littered the streets.

Returning home at 6am and pulling into Plaza de Cuba just before 8, I slept the entire day, waking only for feul and a groggy Skype date with my parents.

Carnaval, you kicked my culo (but I blame the cheap tinto de verano).

For the next few years, I happened to always be out-of-town for the festivities (though I did make it to Cologne for their classed-up Carnival). In 2011, I joined a few friends, this year dressed for the weather and better rested.

The serpentine streets that wrap around town hall, the port and the cathedral held even more people than I remembered, pre-crisis. Like the chirigotas, revelers dress in sarcastic guises, or something that pokes fun at politicians or current events.

In 2011, everyone was hasta el moño with the government limiting freedoms, like pirating music and driving too fast on the highway. My personal favorite? When costumes are scandalous and obnoxious. Case in point: 

Being smarter this time around, we spent the night making friends and reliving our college days. No broken glass, lost friends or cold limbs!

Interested in attending the Carnavales?

March 1st and 8th are the huge party nights in 2014. Be sure to reserve travel and accommodation as far ahead as possible, as the city of Cádiz is quite small and everything gets booked up quite quickly. It’s not advisable to go by car, as parking is limited. You could also get a ticket with a student travel company and stay up all night.

Bring enough cash, as ATMs will run out of small bills, and you’ll probably be tempted to buy something to snack on from a street vendor. Dress for the weather – the nights will get chilly along the coast.

You can also consider attending a less-chaotic carnival in other towns around Spain, like Sanlúcar de la Barrameda or Chipiona. Plus, the choirs and chirigotas are a treat, and there is plenty of ambiance during the daytime.

Love festivals? Check out my articles on other Spanish Fiestas:

Spain’s Best Parties (Part 1) // The Tomatina // The Feria de Sevilla

Seville Snapshots: The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos in Triana

If you’ve ever dreamed of candy rain (circa the Candy Coated Raindrops song from the 90s), you have a date with destiny today: The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos. The Three Kings Epiphany parade has got to be one of the goofiest but beloved traditions for the expat community in Spain, where enormous floats laden with kids pelt candy and small, plastic toys at bystanders. 

There is hardly a trace of Santa Claus in Spain, as children believe that they receive their toys from the Three Kings who brought the Baby Jesus his gold, frankincense and mirth. Coming from the Orient by camel, Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar parade through the city on the eve of the Epiphany. After binging on Christmas sweets, families then gather to eat Roscón de Reyes, a flaky fruitcake laced with whipped cream.

I usually stick with a gin and tonic and ride out the candy storm, venturing out with an overturned umbrella to catch a few sweets for me and the Novio.

If you’re interested, the Cabalgata through Triana begins at 5p.m. this evening, a day later than normal. You can find the schedule here.

Want more? I wrote about Triana’s cabalgata last year, when my friends convinced me, on a candy binge, that it was a good idea to stay out until 6am. Jerks.

My Favorite Spanish Christmas Traditions

When you’ve worked in retail, you learn to hate, LOATHE, Christmas. May your days be merry and bright? Un carajo, may your days be filled with frazzled shoppers and annoying Christmas tunes.

Christmas in Seville means the adherence to age-old traditions. Sure, there’s bound to be an overplayed commercial depicting Santa or that obnoxious song for the lottery drawing (in which respected singer Monserrat Caballé looks like she’s being possessed by the Ghost of Christmas Past), but sevillanos stick to their beloved pastimes. 

I officially recognize that I’m a Scrooge, but Seville is extra special during the holidays, and my feelings about the holidays have changed since moving here. In fact, I find myself missing all of those traditions I used to despise. I miss having a real Christmas tree and going to pick it out with my family, then moan when I have to set it up. I miss taking the train into Chicago to have lunch with my mom and aunt and sister at the Walnut Room, even if there are lines and my mother whines that Macy’s is NOT Marshall Field’s and we can NEVER shop there any other day of the year. I almost, almost miss shoveling snow.

But, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! No need to be sad when there are chestnuts to eat and Christmas programming to enjoy.

You can forget about the 12 days of Christmas – to spark holiday sales and spending, Corte Inglés passed out their toy catalogue long before the official start to the holidays. Even though many would say the Immaculate Conception day on December 8th is the official start to the holidays, Christmas lights were officially on in November. 

Belenes

One of the first Christmas presents I ever received was a handcrafted dollhouse that my grandfather made. I spent hours changing around the design of the rooms, more interested in the aestethic than acually playing with the family of dolls that came with it.

Where we have Santa’s village, the Spaniards have belénes, or miniature versions of that Little Town O’ Bethlehem. But there’s more than the inn and the stable – church parishes, shops and even schools set up elaborate recreations of what Bethlehem, known as Belén in Spanish, looked liked. It’s common to see lifestock, markets and even running water or mechanical figurines.

The biggest belénes are in the cathedral, San Salvador, the Fundación Cajasol in Plaza San Francisco and even at the Corte Inglés. If you want to set up one of your own, there’s an annual market that sells handcrafted adobe houses, miniature wicker baskets to tiny produce and every figurine imaginable in the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral.

Christmas Lights

Even though the days get shorter, the sheer amount of Christmas lights that light Seville’s plazas and main shopping streets seem to simulate the sunny winter days that we’re having this year.

Most neighborhoods will have their own displays up in the evenings. Even my humble little working class barrio has them shining on Afan de Ribera.

Christmas dinners

It’s also quite common for companies to invite their employees to an enormous Chirstmas dinner, followed by copas and often dancing. When I worked at the private school, we’d travel to a finca or salon de celebraciones and have a private catering. The same goes in America – what happens at work parties…

My Christmas dinners at the academy aren’t huge productions, nor do we even do the special Christmas dinners, which are stocked with loads of options and unlimited alcohol. I also do dinner with my girlfriends as a way to see one another before the busy holiday season. Many of us are off to travel, so it’s the best moment to dress up, have a cocktail and enjoy the ambience in the center of town.

Open bars on Christmas day

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the booze, so after the midnight mass, called Misa del Gallo, most Spaniards head to the bar to wait out their seafood and lamb lunches. As strange as it sounds, Christmas Day is not as big of a holiday as Christmas Eve or even New Year’s Eve, when Spaniards stay at home with their closest family members.

On my first and only Spanish Christmas, I was drinking beers at La Grande midday. Because, really, sevillanos are a social bunch, and holidays are meant to be shared with friends.

…and those I don’t like

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, are TERRIBLE (though I always giggle over the ridiculous lyrics, like about how the Virgin Mary brushes her hair near a river after giving birth and the fish keep drinking water because they’re happy to see the Savior). There’s always the huge influx of crowds in the center, which makes it difficult to move around and run simple errands (think, American post office lines to order a coffee). And, of course, there’s the question of Spanish Christmas sweets – lard cookies and sweet anise liquor.

Perhaps the best Christmas tradition that I’ve stumbled upon since moving to Spain is that my parents want to travel. We’ve done away with the tree and instead spend our respective vacations traveling. This year we’ll be drinking glüwhein down the Danube!

How do you celebrate Christmas near you? Do you like Spanish navidades?

Seville Snapshots: Christmas Lights in Seville

Seville is the type of gal who doesn’t really need to get gussied up – she’s stunning enough on her own.

But La Hispalense (she even has a fancy name) loves to gets glitzy at Christmas time. As soon as the long December weekend beings, the city center is bursting with shoppers, a number of handicrafts markets pop up in Plaza Nueva and the Alameda, and police controls tighten up, thanks to the number of merry markers drinking at all hours of the day.

But as soon as the lights are turned on, I feel like Christmas really begins.

This year the city has used LED lights to dress up the city’s biggest thoroughfares – Constitución, San Fernando, around the Encarnación – and even in the outlying neighborhoods. Dios, even the Alcampo next door is decked out in holiday style.

Once again, the 3-D mapping on the eastern facade of city hall is operating. According to Fiona of Scribbler in Seville, the light and music show that’s projected onto the building won an award last year. This season’s show, El Espíritu de la Navidad, will be played from dusk until 11 or 12pm on the hour until the Epiphany Day.

How does your city celebrate Christmas? Where are your favorite lights in Seville located?

Tapa Thursday: A Field Guide to Spanish Christmas Treats

Two weeks ago, I couldn’t find the aisle that is home to eggs and milk in my local supermarket. I walked in circles, desperate to locate what was needed for the Novio to make me croquetas.

The aisle where they normally resided, next to the sliced meat and dry pasta, was empty. Gutted (as was I).

The following day, the milk aisle was replaced by my worst nightmare: the Christmas goodies aisle.

If Spanish sweets disappointed me, Spanish Christmas treats take it to the next level.

As a child, we’d spend hours baking cookies and cakes to leave for Santa or hide under the tree for my dad. My Christmas memories are flavored like peppermint and fudge. Spain’s sweets leave me with much to be desired, sadly, and any time I bring them for my family to sample, they go uneaten.

Turrón 

Far and away the most common treat you’ll find, turrón is a nougat bar made from sugar, egg whites and honey, and are most traditionally made with nuts. The most celebrated types are hard (Alicante sort) and soft (Jijona type), though you can find them made of chocolate, infused with liquor, containing candied fruit or puffed rice or even with candy brands inside.

Marzipan

A traditional shortbread in Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha, this almond paste-based confection is often shaped into bite-sized morsels and have sugar or egg yolk filling.

Yemas

So, I hate eggs, and they’re about the only food I can’t stomach. What say you, then, about a traditional Christmas sweet that’s called Yolks?!

Mantecados and Polverones

Made of pig lard (sorry I just ruined them for you, but the clue is in the name people!) and olive oil, mantecados are quite popular in Andalucía and mass-produced here. These crumbly cookies are often sold like we sell Girl Scout cookies, and come in a dozen varieties, like cinnamon, lemon, chocolate and anisette. Polverones take their name from dust, as these small cakes often break apart as soon as they’re out of their wax wrapper.

If you’re in Seville and love them, consider taking a day trip to Estepa, where you can visit the factories and sample until your heart’s content. About 95% of the workforce in their traditional despensas are women, and the city has earned the moniker of ‘Ciudad del Mantecado.’

Las 12 Uvas de Nochevieja

As per tradition, Spaniards leave room in their bellies for 12 grapes, which are to be eaten on New Year’s Eve at the 12 strokes of midnight for good luck in the coming year. During my first Nochevieja in Seville, my family and I didn’t know about this, so the Novio grabbed 48 grapes and a small bottle of champagne for us from his own family’s stash.

New Year’s is a holiday that’s most often spent with family, but my parents, sister, cousin and I braved the rain last year in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where the official ball drop happens. Most of my grapes ended up on the ground, but I’d say 2013 has been pretty awesome.

Roscón de Reyes

source

Among one of the strangest traditions in Spain is the Three Kings parade on the evening of an epiphany. The three kings and their pages ride through the streets on elaborate floats, throwing candy and small toys to bystanders. The following day, families eat a flaky pastry cake with candied fruit, called the roscón. Two figurines are hidden within the cake – a toy or Christ figure, to be given to the king (who also gets the crown), and a bean. He who finds the bean must pay for the following year’s cake. 

Other popular dulces are nuts and mandarin oranges, and it seems that there’s always a box of the mythical Caja Roja chocolates. Thankfully, I tend not to overeat when it comes to sweets at Christmas. I save my calories for the G&Ts after dinner.

Do you like Spanish Christmas treats, or do you tend to stick to your home country’s traditional sweets?

Seville Snapshots: Halloween in Seville

When I left work on Halloween night, belly full of candy corn and about ready to crash from the sugar, I was shocked to see zombies walking the streets in Nervión. Now, I love Halloween and cemeteries and ghost stories, but Halloween has never been a thing in Spain.

Six years ago, I suggested a Halloween party at the high school I worked at as an auxiliar de conversación. Everyone came dressed as something scary but me. I must have repeated how to carve a pumpkin 31 times during my classes.

Afterwards, I was exhsuated and had to calm down by drinking in Ireland for the weekend.

In these six years, Halloween has taken over costume shops and restaurants, schools and bars. In fact, the only people who carved pumpkins at our annual Halloween bash were two little Spanish kids, one dressed as a tiger, and the other ones as a dinosaur.

The new Taste of America store meant we had actual American goodies this year – candy corn, funfetti cupcakes wrapped in Halloween wax paper, napkins with Frankenstein on them. I was once again reminded of how odd it feels to be so American in Seville, and so sevillana in America. It’s always at this time of year that my homesickness creeps in.

On Halloween, I had to put my game face on for work (meaning a plastic cup covered in pink paper). Many of the little kids dressed up, and we made ghosts out of lollipops and spiders out of construction paper. Afterwards, a quiet drink with a friend – a far cry from my first Saiman in Spain.

How did you celebrate Halloween?

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